What amused me about the critical reception of Whiplash was that as soon as this film about jazz won publicity, acclaim and awards the jazz critics retreated from it like it was some unclean thing. Here are some of the ways in which Whiplash was described by them: “passé”, “retrograde”, “absurdly melodramatic” and “an affront to African-American players”. What all of these critics failed to identify is perhaps the most important thing about Whiplash – that stylistically it’s indebted to a whole series of expressionistic films about obsession and creation, films like The Red Shoes, Lust for Life and Raging Bull. Whiplash closely draws upon Hitchcock, directly mimicking shots from Psycho and Vertigo and echoing their sense of voyeurism. What this close mirroring tells us is that Whiplash is not so much a jazz film but a horror Film. Once you realize this, the visual style starts to make sense as does the narrative of paranoia and abuse. Having done this, we can start to credibly address some of those rashly made judgements against Whiplash. On the charge of racism, we might note that one of the film’s themes is that of whiteness and alienation, a monstrous whiteness which creates by destroying and which self-servingly propagates myths about jazz such as the story about Charlie Parker and the flying cymbal. The film’s virtuoso final sequence is not, I think, a scene of triumph but the moment where one monster begets another.
We do films about jazz a disservice if we ignore their engagement with genre and by obsessing over the representation of jazz – whether it’s the right jazz of the wrong jazz, my jazz or your jazz – we miss the obvious.
By judging a film on it’s own terms, reminding ourselves that films about jazz are also comedies, romances, westerns or horrors we’re reminded just how vast jazz can be. I don’t think jazz was ever just a music, but a culture, a way of being and interacting with the world – a set of meanings constantly changing according to era and environment. To think that jazz can be reduced to simple pure authentic meaning is crass and this is the stick with which jazz critics have beaten the ‘jazz’ film for so long.
Film cannot be reduced to a simplistic message and its audiences are more than capable of finding and enjoying ambiguity. We should think more about what’s created when a live music is captured on film – a recorded, edited medium. This rarely happens in the jazz press because its writers know quite a lot about jazz and not very much about film. Since the 1960s, academic film studies has built up a rich and varied body of critical literature and I think it’s time for jazz writers to start making use of it. If they do they’ll have much more fun in the cinema!